They were building a life together, two young lovers with big plans and dreams for their future.
But an elaborate housewarming celebration - a four-day bash filled with booze, cocaine and several other narcotics - would prove to be a deadly decision.
Jason McDowell pleaded guilty to manslaughter Wednesday to fatally shooting his girlfriend, Samantha Zeemel, inside their newly purchased East St. Paul home in August 2007. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison under a joint-recommendation from Crown and defence lawyers.
"This case could become the poster child for the effects of hard drugs," defence lawyer Josh Weinstein told court.
McDowell, 29, was severely intoxicated at the time of the slaying after going on a drug and alcohol binge that last several days, court was told. Both he and Zeemel had partied with several friends who later described them as "30" on a scale of one-to-10 in terms of impairment. They began arguing, which prompted McDowell to grab a shotgun and fire two blasts at close range.
"I was absolutely insane from four days of binging on cocaine," a tearful McDowell said Wednesday in reading a statement aloud. "I love Sam with all my hear. We had planned on making a life together. I killed my girlfriend and best friend."
Zeemel was halfway through university, dreamed of working with inner-city kids and was her high-school class valedictorian. McDowell said he has frequently considered ending his own life because of the enormous guilt he carries.
"Most days I struggle to find the strength to get out of bed," he said.
The Crown agreed to drop a more serious charge of second-degree murder, which carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for at least 10 years. They cited his impairment as the main issue.
McDowell had previously been committed to stand trial on the first-degree murder charge following a preliminary hearing last year, which implies Zeemel's death was planned and premeditated. But Queen's Bench Justice Chris Martin dismissed it earlier this year on the grounds there was no basis in law to support it.
Zeemel was found dead inside a McGregor Farm Road home just north of Winnipeg following a standoff in which police believed McDowell might still be inside, only to find him gone when they entered hours later. She had been shot once in the face and once in the back of the head.
Police also located numerous empty liquor bottles and white powder on several tables, which tested positive for cocaine. McDowell turned himself in to police days later, accompanied by his lawyer. He has been in custody ever since.
"Without question, what happened here is a tragedy," Justice Joan McKelvey said. "The ravages of drugs and alcohol, which are a bane in our society, played a very integral role."
McDowell had been living with Zeemel for several weeks in the rental home, located just outside Winnipeg city limits.
"As a parent, this is your worst nightmare," Zeemel's mother, Heather Lavallee, told court Wednesday in a victim impact statement. "The pain is forever. She was taken from me in the worst possible way."